One of the newest and brightest additions to the blawgosphere, Jamison Koehler, at his as yet unnamed blawg,* writes a post about ordinary injustice from his days as a Philadelphia public defender. The post exists on two levels, the surface being the point he’s trying to make, about a judge who grew annoyed with him for “wasting” her time.
After years of doing this work, I had developed a good system for pulling up the things I needed to know at a single glance at my cheat sheet. But that was only half of the battle.
The other half was to walk the client through the options and to come to a decision that the client was comfortable with.
You are doing all of this with other clients knocking on the door because they need to speak with you. You are doing this with the court crier coming out to tell you the judge is getting impatient and you’d better get your ass back in the courtroom. And you are doing this with angry and confused clients, many of whom are distrustful of you as a public defender.
Despite his having sent word via the clerk to the judge that his daughter was in the gallery, the judge’s attitude did not improve.
Later, during a break, I asked her what had happened. “You won’t believe the things they said about you when you were out of the room,” she said.
“Who said things about me?” I asked, expecting that she had heard some grumbling from within the gallery.
“The judge and the court people.”
But there was also a subtext to Jamison’s post that likely wouldn’t occur to anyone who became so inured to working in the justice factory. While Jamison takes well deserved issue with the judge’s assembly-line approach to her job, and annoyance with him for doing his too well, this part of his description is troubling.
Of the 40 or so clients I had on the list that day, probably 25 or 30 were there for trial. And for each and every person on that category, I needed to know what the charges were, what prior convictions they had, whether or not a new conviction would violate the terms of probation or parole for one of those convictions, what the prosecution alleged, what my client had said, and whether or not we had any witnesses of our own. If we did have witnesses, I needed to talk with those witnesses to assess their credibility and to determine if their testimony would help our case. If the defendant was planning to testify, I needed to make the same determination with respect to credibility and prepare him or her for what was to come.This is unimaginable to me. He’s staring at 25 to 30 trial ready cases, and first needs to speak with witnesses? He’s got cases ready for trial where a defendant wants to testify but has yet to be prepped? The reasons for this are obvious; he’s a public defender with a list of defendants to represent. Every day, there’s a new list. Every day, there are new people to defend. The list grows longer, the hours in the day do not. He’s trying to do everything he can to provide an adequate defense for every human being whose life is in his hands. He’s “developed a good system” to do so. It’s a good system within a very bad system.
After years of doing this work, I had developed a good system for pulling up the things I needed to know at a single glance at my cheat sheet.
That Jamison would be expected to go to trial without weeks of preparation, inspecting evidence, visiting the crime scene, meeting with potential witnesses, prepping those you intend to call, preparing in limine motions, memoranda of law, jury instructions, tagging evidence, reviewing documentation at least twice, if not three times, is disturbing. There is so much to do to properly defend a person. There is no time to do any of it when you have 25 to 30 cases ready for trial.
Like Jamison, judges sometimes grow impatient with me when I announce that I am not yet ready for trial because I haven’t had an adequate opportunity to review the prosecution’s belated turnover. I’m often told that, “I’m sure a lawyer of your experience can figure it all out over lunch,” or some similarly half-flattering, half-insulting, dismissive comment intended to keep the assembly line of justice moving forward. I refuse to bite on such comments, invariably replying that while I appreciate the court’s faith in my abilities, I nonetheless require preparation time lest my inadequacies deny my client his right to an adequate defense. I do not embarrass easily.
It’s easy for Jamison to overlook the fact that, as a public defender, he had 25 to 30 cases ready for trial for which he was wholly unprepared. That’s was his ordinary life as a public defender. Ordinary injustice is what the factory produces, and it cranks out a ton of it every day.
* Jamison, attempting to straddle the marketing blawgosphere and the substantive blawgosphere, goes by the name Koehler Law Blawg in the hope that it will draw business to him, while allowing him to write substantive posts and participate in the blawgosphere. While his posts are interesting, his writing is excellent and he’s got much to offer, my emphasis on the substantive blawgosphere rather than the marketing blawgosphere precludes my linking to his “marketing name.” I hope that asides such as this will push Jamison to forego the marketing angle and give his blawg a real name, so that I can provide more helpful link love in the future.